Abbas's political gambit

A two-state solution is implicit in a referendum that the Palestinian leader is likely to promote Saturday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected Saturday to issue a decree that would set in motion a referendum on a document penned by prominent Palestinian prisoners on statehood that implicitly recognizes Israel.

The Islamist Hamas Party rejects the proposal to take the question to the streets. Hamas insists that January's election, which swept it to power, speaks for itself.

The call to hold a referendum on the prisoner manifesto is a bold gambit by Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who has been running low on options since the election of Hamas, which refuses to deal with Israel or forgo militancy against it.

Many analysts say the referendum may have less to do with statehood than an internecine power struggle between Abbas's Fatah Party and Hamas. A move by Abbas to promote the referendum, they say, could exacerbate tensions that have exploded in recent violent clashes.

"The problem is that the meaning of the referendum will be: Do you support Abu Mazen or do you support Hamas? That's all it's really about - who has the power," poses Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, located in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem in the West Bank.

"Because Abu Mazen called for the referendum, that means he's really more powerful," Dr. Kukali says, and that's not something Hamas wants to acknowledge.

Were it as straightforward as Palestinians and Israelis recognizing each other, however, the conflict should have been solved a decade ago. Both sides in the conflict have yet to solve some of the thorniest issues - postponed for final status talks that never quite got off the ground - including Jerusalem, refugees, the borders, and powers of a Palestinian state.

With such core issues unsolved, it makes boiling matters down to one question a difficult proposition.

"Referendums around the world are usually on one question, not many questions," says Kukali. "But our dilemma involves many big issues - and that's one of the problems."

Kukali says that the referendum will be held anyway - and will pass with a sound majority. According to the center's recent polls on attitudes, he says, most Palestinians would vote in favor of a referendum recognizing Israel. In a separate poll released earlier this week by Bir Zeit University, outside Ramallah, close to 77 percent of Palestinians surveyed agreed that a referendum should be held, and 81 percent said they support the so-called prisoner's declaration as the platform for a national unity government.

The document was signed by Palestinian prisoners from groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and calls for the establishment of a state within the 1967 boundaries: Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

Polls by Kukali's and other Palestinian polling groups show that Hamas's support in the public is around 30 to 35 percent, far lower than the January's elections results produced: Hamas controls 74 out of 132 seats.

"In January, people voted for Hamas because they wanted to punish Fatah, but they won't do it again," Kukali says. "But if the referendum passes, Hamas will have a dilemma, because they won't really have a majority for their approach."

Not everyone is convinced that Abbas will be successful in his campaign to turn to one of the ultimate tools of a democracy - asking the people choose policy, rather than politicians - as a way out of the current quagmire.

Recent polls have proven unreliable, says Hisham Ahmed, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. "There is no guarantee that if a referendum is held, the results would be favorable to its proponents. It might be contrary to what they have been predicting," he says.

One wild card is the effect of the financial strain caused by the Hamas-led government's isolation from the international community. For example, while Kukali says economic suffering will push people in the direction of compromise, Ahmed says it could also make people rally around Hamas.

"The economic siege might only radicalize the society," he says. His greatest concern is that there won't be an easy solution to the crisis. Hamas does not want to be seen giving in, and Abbas, having staked his heretofore quiet reputation on the referendum, won't want to be seen giving up.

"We could see a situation where both parties stick to their respective positions," says Ahmed. "If that would happen, it would deepen divisions in society and it might even deepen the violence and make it spread from Gaza to the West Bank."

Since Palestinians have never had a referendum before, there are no legal procedures for it. On that basis, several Hamas lawmakers question whether Abbas has the authority to hold a referendum at all. Some argue that the Palestinian legislative council would need to pass a law first, and with Hamas holding such a solid majority, that looks unlikely. Others argue that as president, Abbas can call a referendum by decree - but might open himself to criticism that he is trying to steamroll over the democratically elected government.

"The election law doesn't stipulate anything about referendums," says Ali Jarbawi, the former head of the Palestinian Elections Commission and a political scientist at Bir Zeit. "There's a second question: who asks for a referendum and who organizes it? If you have a legislative branch in session, which there is, and you want [a referendum], you need a law for it."

Other options exist. Abbas can wait until the legislature isn't in session, when the president can simply declare a law. Or he could remove the government and appoint a new one, and call for new elections, Dr. Jarbawi says.

Either of those options might end up making Abbas look autocratic. On the other hand, if he tries to pass a referendum law in the Palestinian legislative council now, it is not likely to pass.

"Abbas is in a dilemma because Hamas is in the majority, but this is how democracy works. You just have to deal with it or, if not, let him take Hamas out of power."

That, for him, is the referendum's central question. "The underlying assumption is: Do you agree to continue with the leadership of Hamas or no? That's what they're asking."

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